In three days this week, it seemed as if three years of recent history had been neatly telescoped into a visual allegory.

On Wednesday, it was 1989 all over again, a statue coming down, a regime collapsing, wild celebration on the streets; the instant (and premature) analogy was to the end of the Cold War. On Thursday and Friday, the images and the news were snapshots of chaos in its manifold variety: looting, ethnic strife, confrontation between crowds and soldiers, and destruction everywhere. A jubilant people suddenly looked threatening. It might have been 1992.

By 1992, only three years after the Cold War ended, the United States was facing flare-ups of chaos throughout the world, most notably in Bosnia and Somalia. The optimism that came with the end of the Soviet Union had begun to dissipate. With the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and ever more crisis in the former Yugoslavia throughout the decade, the burst of self-congratulation that came in 1989 was dispelled by calls for a new pragmatism. New theories and strategies for keeping the world safe were necessary.

Thus emerged a term -- the failed state -- that gives the images of Iraq we see today special resonance. A failed state isn't simply a country, like the Soviet Union (or Saddam Hussein's Iraq), that we don't much like. It is a state without governance, without laws or security, a state in which the people suffer from incompetent, corrupt or nonexistent leadership. It is different from another, closely related term, the rogue state. The rogue state does evil; the failed state breeds it.

Iraq was, till Wednesday morning, a rogue state (in American terms); Thursday morning, it was a failed state. Images in Friday's newspapers were a checklist of failure: men desperately panning water out of a shallow, muddy hole; Kurds looting buildings after the fall of Kirkuk; American soldiers, cradling guns, trying to hold back a crowd in front of a Baghdad bank. What bad governance has created in other countries over a period of years, war had brought in a matter of weeks: broken infrastructure, lawlessness, desperation.

"A city freed from tyranny descends into lawlessness," read one headline. With that shift, so many things changed: the terminology of war and security, the expectations of how our soldiers will relate to the people, and the very definition of the thing that is happening right now, but is so difficult to name. Is it occupation? Reconstruction? Nation-building? Colonialization?

Pictures don't just suggest analogies, they also invite arguments. When pictures of Hussein's statue, torn from its plinth, went around the world, the argument was clear: The administration was right, this was a war of liberation. As pictures of chaos go around the world, the argument (one of them, at least) is: The administration was right, we need to rebuild (or pacify, or control) this dangerous country. On Wednesday, photographs justified invasion; a day later, they seemed to justify occupation.

Very quickly, we've arrived at the day after (writers used the hangover metaphor, yesterday), confronting the troubling thing that for now we're calling occupation. Iraqi fighters who were, a week ago, called irregulars, or Fedayeen, or militiamen, are now die-hards, holdouts or terrorists. With the sense that liberation is behind us, those Iraqis who still oppose the U.S. presence in their country are no longer adherents (foolish, or slavish, or misguided) to an old regime; they are ingrates to their new protectors.

Rudyard Kipling's century-old paean to colonialism inadvertently captures the dangers of imposing things deemed self-evidently good on distant peoples:

Take up the White Man's burden --

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better

The hate of those ye guard.

After a Thursday suicide bombing wounded American Marines, NBC's Chip Reid reported: "Being friends may be much more difficult now because after that suicide bombing, Marines are angry and tense, and they're not sure who they can trust." Reid's comment sums up the danger of the new day in Iraq, the potential for a spiral of emotion, resentment on one side, anger on the other, both fueling each other.

The U.S. government is very sensitive about what to call this new period. Colonization is definitely not on the table. But the word has been percolating in foreign policy journals, and in debates between the right and the left. In October 2001, the historian Paul Johnson ran a think-piece in the Wall Street Journal headlined: "The answer to terrorism? Colonialism." Nostalgia for the British Empire is a small industry within the conservative op-ed community, and the line between economic globalization, with its suggestion of prosperity, and the global dominance of the United States, much resented throughout the world, is often blurred. "Can you have globalization without gunboats?" asks the writer Niall Ferguson.

"I think this vague interim period of not having a vision is why we're reaching back to other models of how occupation works," says Neta Crawford, an associate professor of political science at Brown University. Crawford believes the word colonialism is thrown around too loosely ("It was harsh and brutal and we probably won't, one hopes, see that system again," she says).

But, she says, the potential for economic exploitation is real. And, "the moral certainty is similar. We are so thoroughly imbued with that certainty that it is hard to see beyond it."

Attempting to see beyond moral certainty is a good exercise when reading the possible messages of a picture. On Friday, the wire service Agence France-Presse moved a photograph by Christophe Simon, showing a U.S. Marine commander sitting at a desk in a captured Iraqi security office. On the desk is a map, held down by four ammunition clips from an assault rifle.

The reading, from within the comforting moral certainty that things can only get better for Iraq now that it is coming into U.S. control, is obvious: A hated security force has been replaced by a liberating Marine force. From outside that position of moral certainty, it is a very different image: a land encircled by gun clips, with one authority replaced by another. From outside American moral certainty, it is easily read as an image of old-fashioned colonialism.

Looters are stopped by Kurdish pesh merga fighters in Kirkuk.A U.S. Marine officer sets up his desk. Depending on your perspective, it's an image of bringing order to Baghdad, or a mere changing of the guards.